By Kristin Schultz
NISKAYUNA — Second chances can be hard to come by, but that’s just what Niskayuna’s Youth Court aims to do.
Established nearly 20 years ago, Youth Court is a branch of the local justice system aimed at giving first-time offenders the opportunity to move into adulthood without dragging a criminal record with them.
“The goal is to prevent future criminal behavior,” said program director Geoff Stroebel.
In Youth Court, all the major players are juveniles: the judge, the jury, the defense, the clerk, the prosecution and the accused. Despite the appearance of high school students running a courtroom, this is not kids’ play.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” said Stroebel.
Youth Court is an alternative to the adult criminal justice system and the sentences imposed are binding. If, however, the accused serves his or her sentence and successfully completes a six-month probationary term, the record is wiped clean.
Juvenile offenders must be referred to Youth Court by either school officials or by Town Justice Steve Swinton. The juveniles must be first-time offenders and must have been arrested for no more than a misdemeanor.
The court typically sees cases dealing with marijuana infractions, alcohol, arson, vandalism and petty larceny.
Youth Court operates as sentencing arm. To be processed through youth court, an offender waives his or her right to an attorney and pleads guilty to the charges. The offender then appears in front of a court of his or her peers for sentencing.
Members of Youth Court are Niskayuna High School students who undergo training and sign an oath of confidentiality that prohibits members from discussing people or cases that come before the Youth Court. Members rotate through the various courtroom roles. For one case, a member may represent the accused and for the next case may be a member of the jury.
During Youth Court hearings, only members, the accused and his or her parents or guardians are allowed in the courtroom. The proceedings mirror adult court: The prosecution and the defense give opening statements.
Instead of presenting evidence related to guilt or innocence, the prosecution presents the circumstances of the offense and recommends a sentence — usually involving community service and letters of apology or classes related to the offense.
The defense meets with the offender and the parents. In court, the defense may present evidence that the offender has already been punished at home and therefore does not require heavy-handed sentencing.
The jury deliberates, renders its judgement and the sentencing is read by the judge. The jury cannot sentence an offender to jail.
“People really do deserve a second chance,” said student director Aidan Stevens, a junior at Niskayuna. “They’re not all bad kids.”
Stroebel said the Youth Court program has been successful, both for the offenders, giving them a chance to learn from their mistakes and stay out of the adult criminal justice system, and for the student members, allowing them to help their fellow students, display empathy and learn courtroom protocol.
There are two student directors this year, Stevens and fellow junior Tyler Bobbitt. The court runs 12 months per year but the amount of cases the court may hear varies from year to year. There have been as few as four cases during one year and as many as 50 in another.
Hearings typically last for about 20 minutes.
Niskayuna students interested in joining Youth Court may sign up during the activity fair in September.